Living Off the Earth: Chinese Investment and the Environment

China’s key interest in Africa is to source raw materials to fuel its economic growth. Given this, we should expect Chinese enterprises to show little interest in environmental sustainability. But, as with labour relations, the reality is more complicated. There are examples of disregard for environmental protection, but there are also cases of sensitivity to it.

Claude Kabemba's picture

Director of the Southern Africa Resource Watch (SARW)

October 10th, 2012

China’s key interest in Africa is to source raw materials to fuel its economic growth. Given this, we should expect Chinese enterprises to show little interest in environmental sustainability. But, as with labour relations, the reality is more complicated. There are examples of disregard for environmental protection, but there are also cases of sensitivity to it.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, a provincial department of environmental affairs which has jurisdiction over Chinese companies reports that, if it were not for their contribution to the province’s socio-economic condition, these companies would have been asked to close, as they do not meet environmental standards. The system they use for treating mining products is very harmful to the environment. Generally, the foundries use hydrometallurgy to melt off the copper and cobalt in a furnace. The fuel used in this process is coke, which is very damaging to the environment. Many people interviewed were concerned that Chinese companies are not adhering to lawful practices, but are protected by political authorities at all levels of government. Chinese companies involved in the smelter business pollute the environment and make no effort to respect the legal restrictions. As one Congolese informant put it ‘In spite of their economic contribution (referring to the circulation of cash), for the most part they should be closed.’ The proliferation of mining in Katanga is damaging the environment. The water, air, and soil are polluted. The pH is between 3 and 5 (which is very serious and could contribute to the disappearance of many species), particularly in the Naviundu River. Deposits of minerals are stored on the ground, in an area not cemented according to recommended standards.

One of the biggest environmental challenges facing the DRC is the granting of protected areas to mining companies. For example, CDM has been given the right to mine in the lower Kando region of Kolwezi. This is a violation of the environmental law. The mining law forbids installations in lower Kando, which is a protected area. The mining office granted this permission in contradiction of the mining law, which clearly states that lower Kando (or Kondo) is non-conceded reserve. The Congolese authorities must accept the blame for difficulties in applying the mining law as it relates to the environment. There is a lack of sincere collaboration between the environmental divisions and the mining ministry. The mining law is of an exclusive nature (which repeals the general law) and of an exhaustive nature (which limits the number of parties involved). In the case of the environment, the mining law repeals ordinance no 41/48 of 1953 on harmful salubrious and insalubrious establishments (which in fact is the general law that governs the environmental sector). By way of exception, the mining law refers to the special law for the settlement of environmental matters with regard to processing units. In spite of difficulties linked to the non-intervention of services in the mining sector, environmental departments continue to intervene. There are also problems linked to the quality of agents (including laxity in recruitment and incompetence). The DRC has drawn up an environmental framework law. This document has been approved by the president and is awaiting promulgation.

In Zambia, the mining method being used at CCCM requires a lot of logs, and this has led to indiscriminate cutting of trees by local people for sale to the mine. This has raised concern and caused other stakeholders to call on the government to regulate the cutting of trees before the area is completely deforested. There have also been suggestions for the mining company to consider employing or designing other environmentally-friendly means of extracting and processing the coal. The study noted that most of the land use in the district is mining oriented. The rest is reserved as forest land. The issue of land is critical in the district as a result of the dependence of the district on mining. In trying to diversify sources of income and livelihoods, households have resorted to agriculture, and the only land near to the mining community is either mine land or the Maposa National Forest reserve. There is therefore, a conflict between the farmers and mine management regarding ownership and utilisation of the land. Responsibility to resolve the issue has been given to district stakeholders, including government officials and policy-makers, through the respective members of parliament (MPs). The regulatory institutions for mining activities are the Environmental Council of Zambia and the Mines Safety Department. The relationship between the two is governed by a memorandum of understanding

In Zimbabwe, a strong view was expressed that mining companies generally, the Chinese and Russian included, violate sections of the Mines and Minerals Act on land reclamation. While this point is made about all companies, there are specific cases of disregard for the environment by Chinese enterprises. In Midlands Province, Chinese companies are illegally mining chrome without the requisite EIA reports. One of them had set up a chrome washing plant on the banks of Ngezi river in contravention of the country’s environmental laws. Findings of the audit report into mining companies’ activities concur. A study found that at present there is no specific engagement of the Chinese as a major player of the future in the environmental sphere. An interview with the Zimbabwe Environmental Lawyers Association (ZELA) confirmed this.

But there are other Chinese companies in DRC and Zimbabwe which have made an effort to reduce pollution levels. CDM and others (such as HUACHIM and Congo Loyal Mining) have modernised the fume filtering mechanism in their chimney stacks, and the technology that they are using in the processing of products is highly recommended. In Zimbabwe, ZIMASCO has initiated a process to reduce smoke and dust emissions from the open furnaces, and work has already started on one of the five furnaces. It was also stated that in the mining areas there was reforestation and reclamation of land. This is something that the study did not empirically establish. All in all, the study was informed of the following measures:

·      environmental monitoring of water, stack emissions and dust

·      dust suppression and extraction systems

·      resource monitoring

·      rehabilitation programmes.

·      awareness programmes for resource conservation

·      effluent water dosing programmes to reduce pollutants

·      oil separators.

The efficacy of these programmes can only be established at the empirical level, something the study did not seek to establish, especially given the dispersion of chrome claims throughout the Great Dyke (and particularly with regard to resource conservation and monitoring and reforestation). But they do at the very least show a willingness to take environmental protection seriously.

About the author(s)

Claude Kabemba is the Director of the Southern Africa Resource Watch (SARW). In 2006, the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA) asked him to spearhead the formation of SARW. He holds a PhD in International Relations (Political economy) at the University of the Witwatersrand (Thesis: Democratisation and the Political Economy of a Dysfunctional State: The Case of the Democratic Republic of Congo). Before joining SARW, he worked at the Human Sciences Research Council and the Electoral institute of Southern Africa as a Chief Research Manager and Research Manager respectively. He has also worked at the Development Bank of Southern Africa and the Centre for Policy Studies as Policy Analyst. Dr. Kabemba’s main areas of research interest include: Political economy of Sub Saharan Africa with focus on Southern and Central Africa looking specifically on issues of democratization and governance, natural resources governance, election politics, citizen participation, conflicts, media, political parties, civil society and social policies. He has consulted for international organizations such Oxfam, UNHCR, The Norwegian People’s Aid, Electoral Commissions and the African Union. He has undertaken various evaluations related to the work of Electoral Commissions and civil society groups interventions in the electoral process in many African countries. He is regularly approached by both local and international media for comments on political and social issues on the continent. His publication record spans from books (as editor), book chapters, journal articles, monographs, research reports, and newspaper articles.

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